To the unfamiliar, meal planning (and prepping) can seem like a confusing, overwhelming task. One that isn’t entirely attainable, let alone worth it. Trust me, I get it. Remember that, not so long ago, I dove headfirst into this health & fitness journey by following a generalized meal plan down to the T of nut butter. But when the eight-weeks of detailed daily menus were up, I got
a little a lot… freaked. What I found was, I got really darn good at following a plan, but didn’t learn the first thing about creating my own…
It’s easy to feel intimidated by the entirety of the process – the planning, the shopping, the prepping, and omg, the dishes! And if we don’t understand what role meal plans, or heck! meals in general, play in our personal pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, how can we possibly know where to begin?
So let’s get back to basics, and down to science.
You know that phrase, “you are what you eat”? It’s literally true. Food contains biological information on a cellular level. Meaning, every function in the body – every movement, every thought, every feeling, physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise – is impacted by diet. Yes, really. From hormone production, to energy levels, to organ and brain function, to digestion, to body composition, food serves as an instruction manual for how your body should perform and adapt.
So, if we are what we eat, and we eat what we prep, and we prep what we plan… you see right where I’m headed with this.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.
Long before the tupperware are filled, before the oven is preheated, even before the grocery list is made, nutritional success relies on one thing: The Plan.
So what is meal planning, really?
It’s as simple as this: creating a guideline for the meals you’d like to consume in a week.
It can be a master color-coded binder of recipes (grouped alphabetical order by meal type, of course), a list on your iPhone, or a white board on your fridge. It can be a full blown seven-day menu or a few week-day lunches. It can be entirely home-cooked, or include take out and dinner dates. It can be for your eyes (and belly) only, or feed a family of four. It can be completely or partially prepped. TL;DR: It’s flexible and adaptable, and it has to work for you.
Follow up actions include: grocery shopping, meal prep, and acting on the plan. But today, we’re just focusing on step one: plan.
Meal Plan How To
Commit & Make It Work.
Are you a handwritten gal? A digital queen? Whatever your preferred method, get a space ready to outline your plan, on your terms. Don’t go trying to plan, shop, and prep in one day – give yourself time to get inspired and build out a menu that caters to your cravings just as much as it fuels your body and mind. I start the planning process on Thursday, when I scour the web for drool-worthy dishes (more on that below!). After the plan is finalized on Friday, I hit the grocery store on Saturday and take to the kitchen for prep on Sunday.
Pro tip: there’s no magic number when it comes to meals planned in a week, portioned & prepped on a Sunday, or dishes eaten in a day. There is simply what works for you. Experiment!
I like to use a big ol’ week-at-a-glance like this, and I also have a custom daily planner from Plum Paper, which is great for marking up your plan with real-deal accounts of what actually went down (into your belly 😉 ) Download my printable plan here!
Consider the Big Picture.
First things first, determine how many meals you’d like to plan. If planning multiple meals across seven days feels overwhelming or totally unfeasible for your lifestyle, scale it back. I personally plan five meals a day Monday – Friday and leave weekends totally open for social plans, recipe testing, and fridge-clean out. Next, make note of any obligations, events, or life happenings that impact your plan. Dinner ressies with pals on Friday? Fill it in. Double header SoulCycle class on Wednesday? Consider some extra carbs. Lunch meeting on Monday? Mark it. Sorting your schedule prevents over-spending and food waste! Don’t forget to factor in your environment. Desk-side lunches call for dishes that are easy to transport, reheat, and eat straight from the tupperware, while meals from home may allow for a little more prep and plating. And finally, check your fridge, freezer, and pantry for anything that may be piling up.
Identify one mouth-watering want. I like to begin planning by catering to a craving because it promotes Intuitive Eating within planning by asking us to prioritize our preferences over practicality. But don’t worry, we will get practical! Just keep scrollin’ 😉
Pinterest, the ‘gram, and cookbooks are overflowing with endless entrees, sides, and snacks. Some of my favorite key words to search are: Paleo, Whole30, Vegan, “Light”, Healthy, and Meal Prep. And remember, recipes are inspiration, not bible! Since I don’t identify with one specific dietary approach, I modify, swap, and supplement to meet my personal preferences. Cauliflower “Mac” n’ Cheese catch your eye? What protein matches your vibes? Avocados finally ripe and in season? They make delicious toppings for taco-bowls! Let the inspiration flow, sister. Once you’ve got your craving identified, use it to build your menu using the rest of the tips below.
This week, I was inspired by a side dish from the ‘gram (Kale in Smoky Garlic Sauce from Clean Food Crush) and a Meal Prep friendly main (Instant Pot Chicken Tikka Masala from Skinny Taste). Peep my Pinterest for hundreds of healthy recipes!
Pro-tip: Check the weather! If you’re lacking meal-spiration, the local forecast might help you cue into your cravings. Cold fronts call for hearty, big-batch bowls while warmer temps beg for crisp green salads.
Plan in Patterns.
Keep it simple, sister. You can have your flavor variety and a lil repetition, too! Repurpose dinner leftovers for tupperware lunches, keep snacks the same across the board, or – my personal fave – pick out two options for each meal and alternate them every other day for just enough variety without any complication.
This is my favorite meal planning step because, with a little repetition, the week goes from lookin’ hungry to mighty full just like that. I start by filling in my first meal of the day, 1 scoop of whey and 1 serving of figs across the board for my post-workout recovery. Next up, finding a place for those cravings! Judging by the recipe, I knew the meal prep friendly Chicken Tikka Masala would yield 3 easy to portion, store, and re-heat servings, making it perfect for a desk-side lunch. As for that smoky garlic kale, I thought it would be best eaten fresh (and simple enough to cook after a day in the office), so I picked some protein (chicken thighs, Moses’ fave!) to pair with it for post-work dinners.
Pro-tip: Start with what you know! Just getting something down on that paper (or in that app) will keep your planning in progress.
Use Your Resources.
Remember when I said (wrote?) we would get practical? This is it. Don’t forget to check your fridge, pantry, and freezer for any perishable produce or piling protein! This is key to planning on a budget and minimizing waste.
I identified cottage cheese, prosciutto, and pesto as perishable items reaching their time-stamp, and noticed I had an extra carton of eggs and can (or two) of salmon taking up prime real estate in my fridge and pantry. I used these ingredients as inspiration for my remaining meals with a little help from the next tip…
The most efficient of meal plans make haulin’ on a budget possible by identifying and utilizing overlapping ingredients wherever possible. It’s especially beneficial when recipes call for small portions of perishable produce (“handful of spinach,” anyone?) or to clear out some items building up in the fridge.
Key Overlaps: Prosciutto in egg bakes and chicken dinners, cottage cheese in a.m. or p.m. snacks, spinach in salmon burger lunches and chicken dinners, ground chicken in breakfast sausage and seasonal arancini, blueberries in breakfast sausage and cottage cheese.
Mo’ Macros, Less Problems.
The key to filling and satisfying meals that maintain stable energy levels all day long (and please the palate to boot!) is a complete macro profile. That’s a serving of protein, carbs, and fat in every. single. meal. (Unless you follow a timed nutrition approach for post-workout recovery, but that’s a whole other post). Hold up! You don’t need to crunch numbers, weigh ingredients, and scan barcodes. You simply need to know this: each macronutrient has a unique role within the body that is best applied and utilized when other macros are present.
Pro tip: a meal without a serving of fat is likely to leave you feeling less satisfied, less satiated, and even lethargic… aka ~*hangry*~
Check out these tip sheets for planning a well rounded and perfectly portioned meal!
Mix it Up!
Nutrition is exponentially more than numbers of calories or percentages of macronutrients. It’s a combination of quality, source, micronutrients (all those vitamins and minerals!), and of course, preference! The most nutritious of diets are robust and chock full of variety. When planning your meals – daily, weekly, and big-picture beyond – strive to “eat the rainbow” principle with diverse ingredients in each dish, from protein sources to seasonal veggies and everything in between.
This may take a little practice, but you can start to identify patterns within your plans through reflective analysis and use them to plan a balanced day. For example, maybe you notice you do best with only one serving of dairy per day, or maybe your palate prefers to have a unique protein source for each meal.
Document, Rinse, Repeat.
Don’t toss your plans once the last of the prep is gone! Document your favorite dishes and combinations for future inspiration. Make note of what worked for you and what didn’t, what left you feeling full, what satisfied you, and when you deviated from the plan. Anything to make future you say, “Thank you!”
Pro tip: Identify 3-5 “go-to” recipes for each meal for times when planning feels uninspired or all consuming.
Meal Planning Quick Tips
- Make it work for you! Digital, hand-written, full week of eats, or workweek lunches, how and how much you plan is up to you.
- Think Big (Picture). Before you plan, account for meetings, events, and circumstances – from weather to eating environment – to identify your needs.
- Get practical, save some cash, and avoid waste by checking your resources and using overlapping ingredients.
- Use my quick guides to build a meal plan that has a complete nutrient profile in each meal for ultimate satisfaction, satiety, and performance.
- Keep it simple, baby! Repeat dishes day to day and week to week and find your perfect balance of variety and manageable meal plan.
Next up, we’re covering shopping, prepping, portioning, and packing! Stay tuned.